Last updated on March 23rd, 2021 at 04:25 pm
[This is the second installment in a five-part essay exploring the history of the concept of “gender” in its origins and stages of development. Part one can be found here, and part three is available here.—Ed.]
In our first part, we looked at the historic meaning of the word “gender” and how it differed from the term “sex.” In this part, we will look at the origin of “gender theory,” and how the word took on new meanings in the latter half of the previous century.
In the 1950s, psychologist John Money of Johns Hopkins University first coined the term “gender roles.” This is recognized almost universally as the birth of “gender theory.” In this, its nascent form, the theoretical notion can be summarized as follows:
Separate and apart from biological sex, there are certain roles individuals inhabit in their interactions with the world and with other people, which are socially constructed, variable between cultures, behaviorally reinforced, and more or less determinative, which tend to be “assigned” (if not explicitly, at least by convention or norm) either to males or to females. These distinct roles, or the forces of social construction and assignment from which they arise, are what is meant by “gender,” or “gender roles/gender identities.” (Money, having coined the first term, very soon added the second and thenceforth used would use both interchangeably.)
Now, in this formulation, the theory is not particularly obnoxious. Indeed, there is undeniably some truth in it. In some cultures, for example, men might wear a kind of skirt or wrap which in another culture might be seen as feminine, but according to their native habits of dress is “coded” as masculine (“coding” is another important terminological facet of gender theory and refers to the “assignments” given by a culture to certain traits, behaviors, and other “gendered” exigencies). To take another example, there is not either any really inherent, deeply baked-in connection between boys and blue (on the one hand), and girls and pink (on the other)—yet, at least in most Western societies, these colors have taken on “gendered” significance.
“Gender roles”—nature or nurture?
Where problems can begin to creep in is in the stretching of the terms or the blurring of lines of distinction. Early “gender theorists” recognized the truth in the quip (sometimes attributed to Alfred North Whitehead, though I can’t find any source) regarding the old question about “nature versus nurture.” To that problem, the answer given (in the legendary telling), was that the proper proportion was “100% nature, and 100% nurture.” The point of the quip is that in many things the “nature/nurture” balance seems overdetermined and impossible to parse, each facet an inextricable part of a kind of elemental solution.
Take, for example, speech patterns relating to tonal “pitching.” There is certainly some biological basis for men generally having “lower” and women having “higher” voices, though of course it’s really a matter of a sliding scale and myriad exceptions abound. Added to the biological influences there are most certainly elements of conditioning, learned behavior, and deliberate affectation. It is familiar enough, for example, that certain men might “put on” and adopt higher, lighter, lilting tones of speech, and at some point these become almost “natural” or “second nature.” On the other hand, some women might adopt gruffer voices for certain purposes, even absent biological causes. To put the matter concretely, for example, simply consider the stereotypical speech patterns of certain gay men on the one hand, and certain kind of female comediennes on the other. So, we have (a) the biological “substrate” first; then (b) socially conditioned/behavioral influences second; to which we can further add (c) a sort of amalgamated third level of influences that seem simultaneously biological and behavioral.
Baby talk and Babble: the hermeneutic of confusion
Consider, to wit, speech patterns of adults dealing with babies. There is evidence that shows infants are predisposed to find higher-pitched voices more soothing and calming. Thus, grown-ups find themselves, sometimes even without consciously realizing it, adopting higher tones when prattling to babies in their cribs. Are babies conditioned to this vocal pattern preference by their time spent in their mothers’ wombs, since her voice is the closest and most commonly heard, or is there something “baked in” to the human infant brain on a genetic level that makes this preference natural? What of the adults? Is this a biological drive in the adults, or are we merely conditioned by social conventions of “baby talk”? One can see how quickly such matters become quite complicated upon examination or interrogation.
Regardless, even for the “gender theorists” who most aggressively interrogated these muddier areas of biological/social interplay, there were originally some clear, bright lines of distinction. Certain “roles” were recognized as being primarily and essentially biological, however “gendered” they were in society: case-in-point, motherhood. Mothers are women.
To early gender theorists (as today to most people with common sense), this statement was seen as uncontroversial. Where the real problems with gender theory arise are when these sort of “roles” begin to be infected by the “problematization” (another buzz word in the discipline) of “gender.” And there are other, less black-and-white but nonetheless distinct roles that fit into this area, to varying degrees. For example, there are the “conventional” associations of, say, soldiering and aggression with aspects of “manhood,” versus nurturing and empathy as traits of “womanhood.” These “roles” do undeniably have many socially-reinforced aspects, common mores and values that perpetuate them; but they nevertheless also seem to have a very definite and very firm grounding in biology.
Increasingly, however, as gender theory developed over the decades—and especially with its takeover by academic feminists in the 1970s—these associations began to be challenged. Increasingly, all such associations began to be primarily or even exclusively relegated to the realm of “gender,” and biology took a back seat. Put another way, the discourse around “gender” as a “construct” began to be applied to biological sex. And this began to function as what I call a “hermeneutics of confusion” which, by blending the distinctions of sex and gender, began to allow gender activists to make more and more bold claims in the name of “gender”—even to the point that basic biological roles like “motherhood” and “fatherhood” began to be challenged, on the basis of gender!
Given this “hermeneutic of confusion,” it was really only a matter of time before the thing came full circle, and the role of biology would reassert itself. Except, when this happened, it did not happen in the way we might imagine. That’s what we will look at in our next part…